Thesis Writing: A Hard Nut to Crack (A Student’s Experience)

Muna Rai

Background

No doubt writing a thesis is a hard work. But it becomes harder for students like me who have a limited idea about a subject that I am going to study. My study was always focused on ‘how to pass’ the exam. I rarely voyaged beyond the prescribed books and rarely generalised the things in life that I have studied. I always had a due respect to my teachers and their powerpoint slides and I became successful to note and rote them. I was like a ‘broiler kukhura’ (poultry chicken, not free range), who merely depends on others. Since I started writing my Master’s thesis, I realised the real sense of reading and writing. Before that, I might have just read and written the alphabets and words. Having little knowledge of Critical Discourse Analysis I became crazy. This was the time I suffered the most. Those were the days when I lost my hunger, sleep and even I forgot to smile. I used to see my seniors being scared of the word ‘thesis’ like a ghost. They used to say “oh god, how to write a thesis, the most terrible thing while pursuing a master degree”. I could see a thesis phobia in their eyes. And when the time came for me, I was not an exception to it.

Choosing the area of research

Before the notice came out for thesis writing, I started thinking about it. I became so much worried regarding my research topic that I could not sleep properly many nights. I planned to take some steps for selecting a topic, hoping it will help me to lessen my tension. I kept in mind the classes of Mr Ashok Sapkota, my research methodology teacher, and Prof. Dr Anjana Bhattarai, my academic writing teacher. I looked into the previous thesis titles provided by Mrs Madhu Neupane. I went to my friends’ circle and talked to them about the thesis title. They told me to “Take it easy”. Some of them said, “Thesis can be done within a month. You just go to Curriculum Resource Centre (CRC) and choose one best topic, collect two-three theses and copy and paste some portion of each”. How can I do that? I didn’t understand whether my friends were consoling me or consoling themselves.

One evening, I laid down on my bed and started to think about the research topic starring at the ceiling continuously. I recalled all those subjects which I had studied throughout four semesters. Among them, Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) struck to my attention. I quickly remembered CDA taught by my teachers in the past. And then I became determined that CDA would be my research area. The following day, I went to the department and met my teacher Mr Guru Prasad Poudel to know some possible topics on CDA. To be honest, I was seeking a topic with his help to carry out my research. I said, “Sir, I am planning to do my thesis on CDA, please suggest me one best topic on it?” My question was straightforward. He smiled with anger and said, “How can I provide you a topic, Muna?” and added “In CDA, there are two facets: one is spoken language and the other is written. You can do your thesis on anyone that interests you”. And I choose the second one.

Becoming ‘specific’ – narrowing down the area

I pulled put those bulky photocopy collections on CDA from my bookshelf and read them restlessly focusing on written texts. I became inquisitive and searched CDA in Google and Wikipedia but none of them worked out. Alas! I couldn’t find the topic. After some days the department published the lists of the students’ names and their supervisors. I was under the supervision of Dr Prem Phyak.  On the same day, he informed me that he was appointed as my thesis supervisor and he invited me and other friends in the department for the first meeting with him the following day. The following day was concluded with the general idea about the thesis. In the meeting, I expressed my interest in studying in the field of CDA.

I have the habit of reading newspapers and magazines. I used to see so many advertisements. So, at the time I thought of doing my thesis on advertisements. I became so much happy that I was able to find the thesis topic. I felt like I was flying in the sky. Another day, I rushed to the department and met my supervisor. I said, “Sir, my research topic is Critical Discourse Analysis of advertisements, how is it, sir?” Quickly he replied, “Yes you can but what kind of advertisements, Muna?” I said, “Sorry sir”. He replied, “There are different types of advertisements, which are you going to work on? Please be specific, Muna”. Honestly, I didn’t understand what my supervisor was saying. I returned back with the empty heart.

Every second the words ‘be specific, Muna’ sounded in my mind. I became so restless and I could not sleep well. I didn’t like to eat at all. Later on, a day when reading The Himalayan Times, an English newspaper, an advert about Pond’s beauty cream attracted my attention. More than that a beautiful lady’s face scratched my heart. Suddenly, I remembered the time when I was attracted by the beauty product advertisement ‘Fair & Lovely’. When I was in my early twenties, ‘Fair & Lovely’ beauty product was very popular. At that time, I could see the advertisement of ‘Fair & Lovely’ on T.V screen and in different newspapers. I was highly influenced by the language ‘Get moonlight fairness in your face just in seven days’. I even tried that product wishing to be like them but I could not get the result as said. Now I realized I was being manipulated by the language used. So, I decided to do a research on the title ‘Critical Discourse Analysis of beauty product advertisements’.

I went to the department and met my teacher Mrs Madhu Neupane. I asked her whether this topic would be appropriate for my research. The same day I also met Mr Guru Poudel and got some information about Fairclough’s CDA model. And then I met my supervisor and expressed my intended thesis topic. He said, “Great! Muna. It’s a wonderful idea”. But I had no idea about how to make that great, a really great in action. Everyone praised my topic. As I was confirmed to my research topic, stress topped over my head. It was the first time I understood research is done in a very specific area. After that, I talked to my guru Prof. Dr Jai Raj Awasthi and shared my interest and intention of doing research on that particular topic with him. Soon he sent me plenty of books, theses and articles on CDA and advertisements. I downloaded those sources and read them.  I just read the title and looked at page numbers. Rests of them were books and international theses above hundred pages. I didn’t dare to open them but kept them safely.

Writing proposal

After some days I along with other friends was called by my supervisor for the discussion for the second time. The night before I opened one short article ‘Beauty product advertisements: A Critical Discourse Analysis’ by Kaur et al. I read it twice because it was short in length as well as it was written in understandable language. The following day we had a discussion on everyone’s topics and objectives in short. The supervisor made us aware by saying “now it’s the time for work” and suggested us to start working on it. I don’t know what my friends did but I started to read. I started reading not because I loved it, but because I had no choice. While reading, I took note that struck my attention. I highlighted those lines which I didn’t understand. I went to CRC and overview the previous thesis. I searched theses related to my area but I didn’t find even one relevant to my interest.  Instead, I found almost all theses written from the definition of language and I did the same. I wrote my proposal from the definition ‘Language is a means of communication…’ thinking it might be the best way of writing a thesis.

One day my supervisor asked me “do you have Fairclough’s CDA book?’. I replied “Yes, sir. I do have”. “Which edition?”, he asked. I said, “1998, sir”. He said, “That one is very old; I will give you the latest edition, 2010”. The next day he handed me the book ‘Critical Discourse Analysis: The critical study of language’. My happiness was out of control. I thought I would grab the whole book and make the best out of it. I came back to my room and started to read it. I turned the first page and searched the definition of CDA. I turned the second page, third page, fourth page respectively. Alas! I couldn’t find the thing what I was looking for restlessly. Eventually, I found the book worthless for me. The things I didn’t understand is the book on CDA which consists of above 500 pages did not have the definition of CDA.

I finished writing the introductory part of my proposal in about a month. I sent it to my supervisor for his comments. After some days he called me at the department. The first question he asked me was “why did you start writing your proposal from the definition of language, Muna? Does it make any sense?” I remained silent, as I didn’t have the answer to his question. Then he handed over the corrected section of my writing and asked me to go through it. He also asked me to take out the definition of language. To my astonishment, about 80% of my writing was red marked. I again lost my confidence and thought that I could not cope with CDA. I nearly decided giving up my research on CDA and find another simple topic to carry on. It was only then I realised how weak I was in the English language itself although I was soon going to be an M. Ed graduate. I evaluated myself and felt disheartened.

Facing the viva – proposal

I remained silent for a month as I was looking for another simple topic. During the period, I received a mail from my supervisor who wanted to know about the status of my proposal. I informed him that I could not go further as I found CDA quite tough. I also told him the difficulties on doing a research from the level of knowledge I had on the area I was trying to pursue. He tried to encourage me to do better in my work. He also suggested me to believe in self. His words energised me again. I stood up again. And then I vowed not to let down myself. I started to read the related sources again. I tried to play with the words and thought differently. I went through the corrected part of my introductory portion. I again opened the publications by Fairclough, Foucault, Van Dijk, Wodak and many more and read them line by line. The most painful situation for me was when I went through the bulky books and understood nothing. I felt hard to understand Fairclough’s idea. When I went through his book, I completely understood the first paragraph, but hardly understood the second. When I reached the last part of the book, I even forgot the little idea I had framed. But I had no choice except to read it repeatedly. I kept on reading it even though I didn’t understand.  Ultimately, I continued writing my proposal and prepared the first draft in about four months. Then I mailed it to my supervisor and got his suggestions. This process continued thrice.  Finally, I survived the viva and got confirmation of my thesis proposal.

And facing the thesis viva

Then I set out for my fieldwork. I visited different publications and stationery shops to know about the local magazines and newspapers. As the objectives of my study were to find out those magazines that contained beauty product advertisements meant for women. I collected magazines and newspaper such as WOW, WAVE, Family, Nari, Nawanari, Himalayan Times and The Kathmandu Post published from 2016 to 2017. From these newspapers and magazines, I collected one hundred beauty product advertisements.

Though I was asked to submit the first draft of my thesis before Dashain (two-months after facing my proposal viva), I couldn’t do it. The whole country was enjoying Dashain and Tihar but I was busy in the collection of data for my study. Finally, I was able to collect data but I did not have any idea of interpreting the data.  Again I read Kaur’s article repeatedly and got the basic idea. I followed that article and moved ahead. I made observation guidelines and analysed the language used in beauty product advertisements in terms of their lexical and syntactic features. I also investigated the discursive techniques that represent the identity of women.  I completed the fourth chapter of the thesis by the end of Tihar vacation. I sent it to my supervisor and started to work on concluding the chapter.

I went to the department to meet my supervisor to get his feedback on chapter four. I became happy as he said “Good Muna, this time you worked hard”. He also suggested me to put some pictures in the language analysis part and give sub-topics in the discursive techniques part. I made the corrections suggested by him. I also completed the fifth chapter and sent both chapters to my supervisor for the feedback. After some days, I received his feedback and worked on it. After the fourth round of feedback from supervisor, my thesis was finalised. I successfully defended my thesis on 20th March 2018.

My reflection on this one-year journey

Through my research journey, I learnt to be patient. It made me creative. Now I knew that research is a systematic and stepwise procedure. As a researcher, I learnt to think critically, paraphrase idea and construct it by playing with words. I experienced writing a thesis is the most important part of my journey to achieve the Master’s degree. It led me from tension to creation. It ultimately helped me enter the academic world.

We do not have a habit of discussing academic matters with our friends nor do we have time to exchange our idea with them. I understand that a piece of research is a collaborative work. With my experience, I now feel that although thesis writing is a hard nut to crack, as the time passes by with our own efforts we can not only crack it but also chew and digest it with utmost satisfaction. Therefore, I suggest my juniors to make critical comments on their friends’ ideas. For this, the creation of a friendly environment is required in the academic circle to promote collaboration that may yield constructive outcomes. Exchanging of ideas plays a pivotal role in research writing, so we need to go beyond books.

Finally, in this academic journey, I am highly indebted to my supervisor, Dr Phyak, for his constructive suggestions and guidance. I now sincerely believe that the thesis supervisor’s role is to hold our hands so firmly that he/she would never let us tumble down until we are done with our work. Most importantly, I have due respect for all the authors and researchers who indirectly enlightened me to successfully complete my journey. Moreover, I cannot forget to acknowledge the advertisement companies that remained the heart of my entire work.

Muna Rai is the Master’s student at the central department of education, Tribhuvan University, Nepal. She is also a life member of NELTA since 2015.

A relevant post from our past issue by Dr Bal Krishna Sharma: Writing thesis or academic papers? Read this…

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